Sermon for Pentecost 15 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is my perhaps unpopular, though I assure you learned, opinion that the Pharisees have gotten something of a bad rap. As Christians in the twenty-first century, most of us probably only know that they were Jesus’ interlocutors and, as such, generally ended up on the wrong side of the religious issues discussed in the New Testament. A look into the religious landscape of the 1st Century, however, suggests a more charitable reading may be appropriate.

The Pharisees, unlike that other group we hear so much about in the Gospels, the Saducees, believed firmly that God would resurrect the faithful on the day of judgment and strove to live faithfully because they did believe that their actions had eternal consequences. They developed a very compelling form of biblical interpretation called “midrash”, in which the moral and religious issues in one’s own life could serve as a lens through which to read the Old Testament. St. Paul, himself a recovering Pharisee, used this practice extensively in his letters. Most importantly, the Pharisees’ insight that the worship of the God of Israel could be undertaken by the faithful Jew in the absence of a temple in Jerusalem, that all people could pray despite their physical location, was unique among 1st Century Jews, and it permitted Judaism to continue after the Romans destroyed the temple in A.D. 70.

So, there you have my apology for the Pharisees. Obviously, they didn’t get everything right, though, which is why they got into so many squabbles with Jesus. The primary mistake they made in today’s Gospel, when they shamed Jesus and his disciples for failing to follow what they called “the traditions of the elders” by eating with dirty hands, was the logical consequence of another essential quality of the religion of the Pharisees, called “hedging the Torah”.
The “traditions of the elders” which the Pharisees mention in today’s Gospel were collections of sayings of Pharisee teachers, or rabbis, stretching from the 6th Century B.C. up through Jesus’ own day. From one such collection, the Perkei Avot, came the following:

Moses received the Law on Sinai and delivered it to Joshua; and Joshua to the Elders; and the Elders to the prophets; and the prophets to the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be not hasty in judgment; Bring up many disciples; and, Make a hedge for the Torah.

To “hedge the Torah”, the laws found in the first five books of the Old Testament, was to build a metaphorical fence around those laws. Like “hedging one’s bets” in a game of cards, “hedging the Torah” made everyone feel safer, because they weren’t getting close enough to the letter of the law to break it. This might be confusing, so here’s an example: the Torah, or Law, forbade one cooking a calf in its own mother’s milk. The precise reason for this law is a little confusing, but it likely comes from a belief in the Ancient Near East that doing so would have an emotional effect on the calf’s mother such that she would no longer produce milk or reproduce, leading to a poor yield in livestock over time. By the time the Pharisees got to the law, however, its initial intent had been forgotten. Nobody really knew why such a law had been made or what precisely it meant. Perhaps there was a deeper, hidden principle underlying the law. In any event, just to be safe, the Pharisees decided that nobody should eat any meat mixed with dairy. Cheeseburgers were, thenceforth, right out. So, they made a very specific prohibition much broader in scope since its original was obscure, in order to have assurance that they were above reproach.

It is a similar situation in today’s Gospel. There were certainly laws in the Torah dictating a certain degree of sanitation to the end of what today we would call “public health”, but all of the hand washing and purification of “cups, pots, and bronze kettles” which the Gospel reading mentions were extensions of these laws. Far from rejecting the law, which he believed to be God-given and salutary, Jesus was being faithful to the command Moses himself gave in today’s Old Testament reading: “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it.”

Religion, “true religion” as today’s collect calls it, is a good thing, and Jesus knew it. Pardon my apparent stuffiness, but I believe it to be far more salubrious than half-baked philosophies and warm-fuzzy feelings, because it gives us a connection to a way proven by countless generations to worship God and experience His transcendent love and glory. Tradition is a good thing too, for the same reason, so long as the tradition finds its motivating force in the true worship of God.

So Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees was neither antinomian (that is, a rejection of the law) nor anti-religious. It was, rather, a call to true religion. It was a perhaps none-too-gentle indictment of what the prophet Isaiah called “teaching human precepts as doctrine”, but it was not a rejection of doctrine.

So, the task before us, then, is determining what is human precept and what is true religion. Unfortunately, this is a very difficult question, and I’m not smart enough to answer it entirely should I have a lifetime to ponder it, much less in the next two minutes. I firmly believe that the Canon of Scripture, and the Creeds, and even the Book of Common Prayer fall into the “true religion” category rather than the “human precept” category, and it’s through the fruit that I’ve seen these texts bear in the hearts of the faithful and in my own life that have led me to that conclusion.

Both St. Paul and St. James write about the good fruit which is borne by the faithful, and I think that to some degree religion can be judged by the same principle. Does one’s religion lead one to hypocrisy and pride, or does it lead to obedience and humility? Does one’s religion lead to spiritual elitism or does it bear fruit in spreading the gospel with love and in “caring for orphans and widows in their distress” to use St. James’ litmus test? Does one’s religion lead one to an obsession with rules, or does it lead to loving one’s neighbor and worshiping one’s God with a pure heart? Are we as individuals bearing good fruit? Is Trinity Church bearing good fruit? Are the Diocese of Ohio and Episcopal Church, USA bearing good fruit? Is the Church Catholic in all its many expressions throughout the world in 2018 bearing good fruit. These are a lot of questions whose answers probably all range somewhere between an absolute “yes” and an absolute “no”, but I’ll leave it to each of you to ponder them. And as you answer these questions for yourselves, let today’s collect be your refrain: “Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works.”

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Address for Pentecost 14 by the Seminarian

Today is my last day as a seminarian intern here at Trinity Episcopal Church, and I want to express my deepest gratitude to all of you for having me this summer. I have had the opportunity to shadow Fr. John as he went about each day’s unique ministries and activities. We made hospital visits and brought the Eucharist to the home-bound, we planned all of music for 9:30 worship service all the way through Advent, we’ve been to vestry meetings and diocesan meetings, we have planned funeral liturgies, we pray the office and have Mass on feast days, and Bible studies on Monday evenings. We even give the occasional lesson on operating a smart phone! In all of these things, and in many more, I am very blessed to have had the opportunity to be with you through it all this summer.

In addition to all of those specific ministry experiences, I also got to have coffee and conversation with Fr. John every morning right after morning prayer. (Side note – Fr. John loves it when people are able to join him for morning prayer!) During or morning coffee I had the opportunity simply to talk with Fr. John about so many things, and there was ample time as we always had more than one cup! I had the chance to talk at length with Fr. John about the liturgy, theology, the teachings of the Episcopal Church. Our discussions were always freeflowing, and sometimes veered off into other equally important topics like why I haven’t watched or read The Lord of the Rings, and how it should be assigned reading. In any case, when I sat down to write this final sermon for Trinity Church, I decided to reflect back on one of our conversations over coffee in light of today’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians.

Perhaps you remember few weeks ago when Fr. John mentioned how every preacher has at least one hobby horse. Well we had a conversation where one of my hobby horses and one of his met. We were talking about how the culture of the Episcopal affects the way we see the mission of the church. (this is my hobby horse, and poor Fr. John and to endure hours of me bringing this topic up in various ways!).

We know that we are to serve the world in Christ’s name, but what work are we to be doing in exactly? What is our primary struggle? How do we, as a church, engage the world? On a societal level, there is a spectrum of belief as to how much the Church should be involved with issues of the state. One the one hand is the church’s complete disengagement from public life; the view that mixing religion and politics is bad for everyone. Religions faith is something completely personal, and then separate from that is the rational civic self, and this is the self that votes and has policy views. One the one extreme is a state church, where the church and the state are a single entity, and religious doctrine and secular law are one and the same. Whenever is a case of extremes, the tendency is always to veer too far in one direction or the other. Given our heritage as coming from the Church of England, the Episcopal Church has often seen itself as a quasi “established” Church of the United States. And although the privileged position the Episcopal Church once held in the country has waned over the past several decades, it seems that the cultural memory of it still leads are quite a few Episcopalians to see political activism as the primary “work” of the church. The mission of the church is racial reconciliation! Or the mission of the church is to end gun violence! Or the mission of the church is care for the environment! Our primary struggle is against racism, it’s against violence, or it’s against pollution! Those may all be good Christian causes, but none of this is THE mission of the church.

Luckily for us in this case, we do not need to rely solely on tradition and church teaching here, because it is laid out for us in today passage from the letter to the Ephesians: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Our primary struggle as Christians are against the spiritual forces of darkness. (This, of course, is one of Fr. John’s hobby horses). As a Church culture, particularly as a Church that has historically been a state church, it is has been our tendency to talk the most, think the most, and pray the most about issues of the state, rather than issues of soul. “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” There is evil in the world, and it’s something that as a culture we have a hard time grappling with. The devil need not be imagined as a man in a red jump suit with horns and a pitch fork. Evil is the unholy, the absence of God’s presence. God is the creator and life giver, and yet within the world there is a force which draws us toward division, to discord, and to undoing ourselves, either slowly, piece by piece, or all at once in the ultimate act of will to non-being. Part of this is psychology, and part of it is sociology. But science always has its limits. Cosmology tells us about the formation of galaxies and biology, how life evolved on this planet, but they can never explain why there is something rather than nothing. Ultimately God the Father stands behind all that is. Likewise, there is evil, whether personal or abstract, there is something we can call the “devil” that is active both in the world and in our hearts.

All of the secular causes that laid out earlier (anti-racism, environmentalism, an end to gun violence, etc.) are things that I believe the Christian church has an obligation to engage those issues AS THE CHURCH and in the name of Christ. But our primary struggle is against evil as such, just as there are many goods in the world, but God is the primary and first Good above all others. So let us work for good causes in order to care for our neighbor and for the stranger among us, but let us do so only after fervent prayer, seeking first to banish the darkness from our own hearts. For all of the beautiful work that Christians do for people across the country and around the world, we must never mistake the church as being primarily an organization for social services or political activism, even while we do engage in these activities in the name of our faith. The mission of the church is spelled out on pg. 855 in the prayer book:

Q: What is the mission of the Church?
A: The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Promoting justice is part of what it means to restore all people to unity with each other, and there is overlap and cooperation in that work between the church and secular charities. But only the Church can restore people to unity with God in Christ, so let us not fail to remember our duty.

Sermon for Pentecost 13 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’ve never understood why those free Bibles given out by the Gideons were incomplete. If you’ve ever seen one, you may have noticed it. I suppose printing cost keeps them from handing out whole bibles, the Old Testament taking up more than two-thirds of the text as we’ve received it, though it’s a pity since the New Testament can really only be understood in relation to the Old. The really odd thing to me, though, is that these little free bibles almost invariably (at least as far as I can tell) include not only the New Testament but also Psalms and Proverbs. If we’re supposed to understand the New Covenant why not include at least Exodus and Isaiah? The former recounts the revelation of the Old Covenant (the Law) and the latter is perhaps the greatest prophetic precursor to the New Covenant of Grace through Christ.

I guess I can understand the inclusion of the Psalms. Though many are rather nasty complaints asking God to smite one’s enemies, several of them are beautiful poetic prayers of supplication and thanksgiving and can be of great value as we learn to pray as we ought.

But Proverbs?! Forgive me if it sounds like I’m bordering on irreverence or if it’s an important text to some of you, but Proverbs is a rather a dull little book. Its intended audience doesn’t at first glance seem to be very broad. It’s addressed to a young man of wealth and privilege and far too much of it harps on about the dangers of sleeping around. It might have been profitably distributed to the gents in my freshman class at Colgate, mostly East Coast prep school boys who were for the first time surrounded by girls in a less controlled environment than the co-ed mixer with the ladies from the good old sister school two towns over. For most of us the book might seem a bit less apropos.

But while the specific advice which Proverbs offers might leave at least some of us cold, the book shines when its meta-narrative is made explicit. While most of the book pelts us with one pithy piece of advice after another, it occasionally leaves that tack to define wisdom and contrast it with folly in rather striking, beautiful terms. That’s precisely what we get in this morning’s Old Testament lesson and it gives us an important insight not just into how we ought to behave, but into the nature of God.

Listen again to those words we heard a few minutes ago:

Wisdom has built her house,
she has set up her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her maids to call
from the highest places in the town,
“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
To him who is without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Leave simpleness, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.”

Notice that wisdom is not here described as some kind of practical knowledge to be acquired by a lifetime of experience. Wisdom is not described as a brute to be vanquished nor as a race to be won. Wisdom personified is matronly and gracious. She has prepared a meal – a rather elegant one at that! – and sent her handmaids out to invite us into her estate. She is not austere; “leave simpleness” she demands of those who wish to partake of her meal and live.

Unfortunately our lectionary left out the saucy bit, Proverbs’ description of the opposite of wisdom, so here it is and pay attention, because I don’t want to get too explicit in my explication:

[Folly] is noisy;
she is wanton and knows no shame.
She sits at the door of her house,
she takes a seat on the high places of the town,
calling to those who pass by,
who are going straight on their way,
“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
And to him who is without sense she says,
“Stolen water is sweet,
and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”
But he does not know that the dead are there,
that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.

Did you catch that? Just like Wisdom, Folly is personified. She is a woman, but of a very different sort. What she has to offer is pleasure of a more vulgar variety. It might initially appear more appealing than Wisdom’s banquet. It seems an awful lot more fun. But it’ll cost you. It’ll cost you upfront and (they knew as well in ancient Israel as we do today) it may well cost an awful lot after the fact. Enough said.

This all seems awfully counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Wisdom is easily acquired and it’s awfully pleasing. You’ve got to go out of your way to be a fool, and it doesn’t take long to experience how unpleasant its fruits can be. If this seems contrary to everything you’ve heard about wisdom and folly, it’s probably because it is. If it doesn’t make much sense, it’s probably because it doesn’t.

If you don’t much like paradoxes… well, sorry folks, that’s Christianity. There are a lot more apparently consistent worldviews out there. Atheism seems remarkably consistent. Too bad it’s false (but, then, I’m biased). Our whole faith is based on apparent inconsistency- “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” as St. Paul put it. Power is shown through condescension, True God becoming a feeble baby born in a filthy shed. Freedom is seen most powerfully in a man bound and brutally murdered by the State. An implement of gruesome pain and terrible shame is our easiest yoke, our lightest burden.

Wisdom, khok-mä, sophia, sapientia, that great illusive virtue, is as easy to take in as air is to breathe, because She is the Word by whom all things were made; because She is Christ Himself. She is as easy to feel as Water from that font. She is as easy to taste as Bread and Wine from that Table. We can try and try and try to gain the Wisdom by which we should order our lives and never find it. We can exhaust our reserves of time and energy and money and esteem and still be foolish and unconsoled. Or we can accept that simple invitation from Matronly Wisdom:

Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!
Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Leave simpleness, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.